Divers discover possible new fish family

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A psychedelically striped peach and tan fish with a flat face and arm-like fins that enable it to crawl into crevices may belong to a new family of anglerfishes (also known as frogfishes).

The owners of a commercial dive company were the first to spot the unusual fish in the waters of Ambon Island in Indonesia.

The couple, Buck and Fitrie Randolph (who partly own Maluku Divers) along with dive guide Toby Fadirsyai, photographed the fish on January 28 in Ambon harbour.

Juvenile fish were spotted in Ambon waters March 26, while a female was seen protecting an egg mass of about 20 to 30 young on 1 April.

The Randolphs consulted reference books in an unsuccessful attempt to identify the fish.

This led to their emailing ichthyologists before finally being referred to a world expert on anglerfishes, Theodore Pietsch of the University of Washington. Pietsch confirmed that the fish is an undescribed species that most likely belongs to a new family of anglerfishes (there are currently 18 families of anglerfishes in the world).

As soon as I saw the photo I knew it had to be an anglerfish because of the leglike pectoral fins on its sides, Pietsch says. Only anglerfishes have crooked, leglike structures that they use to walk or crawl along the seafloor or other surfaces.

Anglerfishes typically have a lure on their foreheads that they wave to attract prey.

Unlike other anglerfishes, the Maluku frogfish (what Pietsch intends to call the fish) lacks a lure, has tiny pelvic fins, and has a flat face with forward-facing eyes (this may give the fishes binocular vision, which is extremely rare in fishes).

Without a lure, the Maluku frogfish is thought to crawl under rocks and into coral to hunt for small fishes and shrimps.

One of Pietsch's graduate students traveled to Indonesia last week and captured one of the fish so the scientists can examine the fish more closely and perform a DNA analysis and to better understand how the species is related to other anglerfish.

When only a single individual had been sighted, Buck Randolph and Andy Shorten, co-owner of Maluku Divers, kept the find quiet to protect the animal.

Once more individuals were found, and having a better idea of where to look to find others, the two became comfortable enough to post images on the firm's Web site.

With so much attention on the remarkable find, Shorten thinks that seeking out the new frogfish is probably going to be the Holy Grail of many divers for a while. I don't think it will turn out that there are a lot of these animals but all that scrutiny will help us find out for sure, Shorten says.